Ahead of his concerts with Katie Noonan and the SSO, the cartoonist-poet explains the musicality and lyricism that drives his art.

Many artists have seen musical potential in the drawings and poetry of Michael Leunig. The Australian cartoonist – and Australian Living Treasure since 1999 – penned verses and images to accompany Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals in a production with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Richard Tognetti in 2000 and the following year wrote songs and poetry with Neil Finn, Brett Dean and Tognetti for the ACO’s Parables, Lullabies and Secrets. In fact, there is a long list of Australian composers who have set Leunig’s words to music, including Katy Abott, Lyle Chan, Kate Neal, Lachlan Skipworth and Paul Stanhope to name just a few.

This week Leunig joins singer-songwriter Katie Noonan, her trio Elixir and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra – under the baton of Iain Grandage – in Gratitude and Grief, a collaboration that will see the artist’s poetry set to music, and the cartoonist-poet live-draw visual accompaniments.

Michael LeunigMichael Leunig. Photo © Sam Cooper

While Leunig, whose work is by turns wistful, philosophical and political, admits to having “no real musical capability” himself, it’s clear as he speaks to me over the phone that music has been interwoven with his life and art since childhood. He was exposed to music initially “in a very kind of ordinary way,” he explains. “A child listening to grandmother and mother play piano and sing songs.”

“There was a lot more sort of organic music around when I was a boy,” he says. “People would sing in each other’s homes around pianos, when you visited relatives. Then of course there’s going to Sunday School as a child – you sang all those little hymns, and you imbibe a whole sense of music just from your folk culture for a start.”

He also began learning the piano, even sitting exams. “I didn’t enjoy it too much, perhaps because of the teacher, who was a bit strict and harsh on me,” he says. “But I continued to fiddle around on a keyboard and then I wanted to play a guitar and I even made myself a little sort of guitar when I was a boy, kind of a pathetic little attempt at a stringed instrument – so I was keen.”

A deeper interest in music was awakened with exposure to the folk music coming out of America, including Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. “And of course it was the pop music of the time, the 50s, the rock ’n’ roll thing and Chuck Berry and all that, and then of course there was The Beatles.”

“I was hugely affected by music, I was very moved by it whatever it was,” he says. “I was very affected as a creative thing, and I used to compose little tunes and performed in a little band at school, et cetera, and I loved the idea of composition.”

Leunig now sees a direct impact on his own creative process, affecting the nature of his graphic work, cartooning and writing. “I think there’s a musicality or a lyricism in my work to some degree, or to a strong degree actually,” he says. “It’s that lyrical quality that moves my work, and I think a lot of musicians and composers have picked up on that.”

This has led to numerous collaborations over the years, further enmeshing the artist’s visual and literary work with the musical world. “I have the greatest respect for musicians, and the greatest envy of what they can do,” Leunig says. “I think it’s a very happy envy, I’m glad they do it, and I wish I could touch people the way that a musician touches a person, or touches our emotions or our heart or our mind or something – I think that’s the supreme kind of art.”

Katie Noonan, ElixirKatie Noonan and Elixir. Photo © Meg Collins/Sum Management

The collaboration with Katie Noonan – who has described Leunig as “an awesome human and wordsmith” – developed gradually. I have an affinity with musicians generally and can speak to them. Artists, painters and musicians can spot each other across a crowded room – they speak a similar language.”

Noonan and Leunig began to cross paths professionally and the pair have appeared on panels together. “I just got to know Katie,” Leunig explains. And soon enough she picked up a couple of my texts and set them, just for her own curiosity and pleasure I suppose, and it just grew out of that – just a gradual interest in each other’s work. I’m always very honoured and flattered by a musician’s or composer’s interest in using my texts,” he says. “I think that’s a great praise.”

Does having his words set to music change the way Leunig sees his own work? “I’ve woken up in the morning and I’ve switched on Classic FM, and I hear Gondwana Voices singing a piece that I’ve written,” he says. “Recently that happened – I had these beautiful children’s voices singing one of my pieces, which had been written in a time of distress about war, and to hear them, these voices, almost brought a tear to my eye. So that’s hearing it differently isn’t it?”

“I was very moved,” he says. “You can stand outside your own work and hear it, when it is sung. Because in my mind, as I create these pieces, there is a sense of relating to the musicality of life, and musicality relates to emotions or the psyche – or as I used to say the soul – and so my work leans to that dimension of the mind rather than the political. It’s the greatest compliment to work with a musician would want to carry it further.”

Ducks for Dark TimesThe cover art for Leunig’s latest book, Ducks for Dark Times

In Grief and Gratitude, Leunig will be drawing live in front of an audience – something he’s done before with the ACO – but the cartoonist, whose work is by its nature generally solitary, seems un-phased by the idea of people watching him work. “Drawing always is performative, even if there is no audience in the sense that you, you’re seeing it live,” he explains. “Whether it’s you using a pen, or using a brush, there’s a joy in watching it come off the end of the drawing instrument and just seeing it suddenly there, on the paper, unique to itself, as distinct from digital drawing or something. There’s something about the organic nature,” he says, “about the ink, the brush, the paper or the canvas, which is really enjoyable, it’s like a note coming off a violin.”

And for Leunig this analogy cuts both ways. “A bow drawn across a string makes a line in the air, so to speak, like a visual, an aural line. And so a visual line has some relationship to that, and it’s a great pleasure – a raw, kind of primal pleasure – so I can appreciate that, to watch a line come off a brush onto a surface. Simple things. I think it’s fundamental to human nature – you watch a child with a pencil, or the chalk on the footpath, the line, a great sense of creativity and playfulness, but very simple. I’ll be playing that instrument!”

Leunig is nonetheless humble about his work. “It’s not meant to be Beethoven,” he says. “It’s just a drawing, you know, just a simple thing.”

Noonan has spoken of Leunig’s work bringing solace. “His words and images are profoundly beautiful and contemplative and give us a sense of stillness and peace,” she says. So what does the artist hope audiences will come away with from Grief and Gratitude? “I don’t know, maybe their lyrical sense is a little more enlivened? Or their sense of transcendence,” he says. “The same I guess as any musician would hope for, that they will come away feeling there’s an integration between words and lyrics and music and voice and line. These are all related and interrelated and integral.”

“There’s just joy in that, and there is play in that,” he says. “I think people come away from all art concerts, hopefully, more alive than when they went in.”

Grief and Gratitude is at the Sydney Opera House November 2 – 4.


Michael Leunig’s new book Ducks for Dark Times is out now.